Film Review – The Greatest Showman

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The Greatest Showman had me since I first saw the trailer about six months ago. They had me at Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron. They had me at original musical.

The movie tells a romanticised and very Hollywood version of a portion of the life of P.T. Barnum, widely regarded as the man who originated showbusiness with his circuses, “freak shows”, music concerts and theatre productions. He began with a museum displaying human curiosities, but went on to establish a travelling circus and can even be credited with making theatre, previously viewed as “dens of inequity” accessible and respectable to the middle-classes.

The movie follows Hugh Jackman’s P.T. Barnum on a real “rags to riches” tale as he steals his childhood sweetheart Charity, played by Michelle Williams, away from her middle-class life with promises of a life of magical dreams come true. But flash forward and he is laid off from his menial job when the company goes bang and although they are perfectly happy with their two beautiful daughters, Barnum feels inadequate and disenchanted with the life he has created for his beloved Charity. Filled with inspiration, he dupes a bank into giving him a loan to buy a run-down museum which he slowly turns into the stage for a grand production of epic proportions for performers with extraordinary talents who have been living on the fringes of society due to their perceived oddities.

Although the show draws in adoring audiences, it also attracts protestors who are less than enamoured with the “freakish” performers. The ever-ambitious P.T. Barnum is also dissatisfied that his show is being ridiculed in the press and despite his success he is still met with scorn from Charity’s parents and the rest of the highbrow community. In an attempt to give his shows more credit with the middle-classes he teams up with the esteemed Philip Carlisle (played by Zac Efron) who becomes his business partner and eventually his young protégé. He also teams up with Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, whom he meets when being introduced to the Queen of England. Without even hearing her sing, he books her for a 150-show tour of America. Barnum puts everything on the line to fund the tour, leaving the circus in the hands of Carlisle, but for all intents and purposes abandoning the performers he rescued from a life of solitude.

How will the performers react to being left behind? How will Charity react to her husband being on tour with another woman? And when everything begins to collapse around him, will the greatest showman be able to pull himself together and pull off a performance that saves showbusiness and his family?

The storytelling draws you in and the characters hold you there. The performances are spot on; from the acting to the singing, dancing, acrobatics, trapeze artists and almost anything else you can imagine. But what really gets you is the music. From the opening beats of “The Greatest Show”, to Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron’s catchy duet “The Other Side”, your foot will be tapping. And I literally had tears rolling down my cheeks when Keala Settle, “The Bearded Lady”, belts out the movie’s anthem “This is Me”. It has become my personal anthem for the year. And the rhythm of the film’s closing number “From Now On” will lift your spirits and have you ready to dance out of the theatre and onto a mission to make your own dreams come true. It’s that kind of movie.

Hubby and I came home and immediately downloaded the soundtrack. It has been on repeat in our house and cars ever since. It is that good. It should have come as no surprise to me that all the songs were written by duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, known together as Pasek and Paul. Best known for their work on Dear Evan Hansen, a Broadway Musical I would give my right arm to see (and that’s my good arm), they have already won an Oscar for “City of Stars” featured in La La Land. This extra info also led me to discover that this movie was over seven years in the making, because studio execs just didn’t have faith that a feature length musical could be successful. I also came across this video where director Michael Gracey had finally accumulated roughly eighty big wig potential investors to listen to a read through and performance of the songs, only to discover that Hugh Jackman had just undergone a procedure to remove skin cancer from his nose and would not be able to sing at the showcase. Forced to get a stand-in singer, the power of Pasek and Paul’s song writing completely overcame him for the final number and he burst into song for “From Now On”, bursting his stitches in the process and sending a stream of blood running down his cheek. That’s the power of music for you.

So, by now it’s quite obvious I am a massive fan of this movie. Apparently critical acclaim has been mixed with some reviewers calling it “faux-inspiring and shallow”. Now that just makes me sad. In this terrible world we live in, what’s wrong with a little escapism, and a heart-warming musical journey that champions the outcast. It has also been criticised for the level of artistic licence taken, for instance, Zac Efron’s character is entirely fictional. I think it’s also important to point out that Hollywood is usually very loose with the biographical truth when presenting something historical, because let’s be honest, very often the truth was a bit boring.

However, in the case of P.T. Barnum, his life was anything but boring, and while I couldn’t find any historical accounts of him doing a musical routine down a main street, it’s important to point out that this film only depicts the very beginnings of his career, and this may be a case where the truth is more thrilling than fiction. Following the hugely successful Jenny Lind tour (which in the movie is conversely depicted as an epic failure), he set about changing the public’s attitudes towards theatre and built New York City’s largest and most modern theatre, displaying everything from watered-down Shakespeare to farces and even dog shows. He started a weekly pictorial newspaper and published an autobiography that sold over one million copies.

After a series of bad investments almost ruined him, he pulled himself out of debt and public humiliation, resuming ownership of his museum where he created America’s first aquarium. Against the odds, he revived his former magic and at the age of 60 established “P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome,” which survived fires, train disasters and other setbacks to bring entertainment to the country, and even London. Barnum was also involved in politics and spoke out strongly against slavery and racism in the period leading up to the Civil War. He served four terms in the Connecticut legislature and also became mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut where he worked hard to improve their water supply, bring gas lighting to streets, and enforce liquor and prostitution laws.

But most of these achievements get lost in the legend, the legend of a showman, an entertainer who could promote anything and everything and whip any crowd into a frenzy. He is credited with many, many quotes, some erroneously, but I think my personal favourite has to be “The noblest art is that of making others happy”. The Greatest Showman will make you happy. Go and see it.

Rating: 4/5